There was no ah ha moment – no specific golden-hued childhood memory of me snuggled in my mother’s lap, watching her slowly open a book and begin to read. The realization of how the power of words on a page can take you anywhere. Oz, Narnia, the moon. Instead I have scattered images. Going to the Staunton Public Library with my parents when I was very young and wanting to visit a certain room because it had a hole in the floor where I could stick my finger and my father would whisper, “Be careful. What do you think is down there?” Another image – me on the bed beside my mother and pretending to read one of her books out loud, making up words, telling a story. I don’t remember learning to read, but I remember desperately wanting to read.
I would go to the library twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. There was a limit to how many books you could take out and that seemed hideously unfair to me. My suggestion – you should be able to check out as many books as you could carry. But I followed the rules and checked out the allowed seven (only seven!) and most likely read at least one (probably two) on the car ride home. It was frustrating – at this rate, how would I ever read all the books in the library?
I wish I could say the first book that inspired me was The Wind in the Willows or Charlotte’s Web. But no, it was Nancy Drew. Not from the library where they were absent from the shelves (I’d asked why and became indignant when the librarian told me they weren’t “right”). I was given Nancy Drew books as birthday presents or a reward for a good report card. Oh how I wanted to be Nancy. To have a blue roadster and a boyfriend like alliteratively–named Ned Nickerson. Nancy’s father, Carson Drew, was an attorney, a job I found far more exciting than my father’s job, a newspaper reporter (what was I thinking?). There was no mother to tell Nancy to clean her room or pick up her clothes. Nancy’s cheery housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, did that. Two loyal female friends, Bess and George (a “tomboy”), helped Nancy solve mysteries, but Nancy was always the most clever, of course. That’s why the books were named after her.
After graduating from Nancy Drew (I tried the Hardy Boys, but they weren’t as interesting), I moved to Erle Stanley Gardner and Perry Mason. I’ve always been semi-obsessive with any kind of book series. If I like one, I have to read them all. (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, the third book in the trilogy to come.) I plowed through the Perry Mason series when I was in fifth grade, loving how Perry solved every case, no matter how complicated. And I knew he’d get together with Della Street one day.
My taste has expanded over the years – I count Dickens and Edith Wharton among my favorite writers. Kate Atkinson and Douglas Coupland and John Irving also make the top ten list. But I still enjoy mysteries. Ruth Rendell, P.D. James. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo wrote ten books about a detective in Sweden (a series – woo hoo!). Henning Mankell and Ian Rankin and Denise Mina are terrific. But everything started with Nancy and trips to the library, even though the two weren’t exactly copacetic. It didn’t matter. Once the mystery of reading was unlocked – whoosh, I was off. So many books, so little time.